Pharmacy in World War II: The Pharmacist

Pharmacy in World War II - The Pharmacist

As a former pharmacist, I’ve found the history of pharmacy in World War II fascinating. So fascinating that I’ve written two novels featuring pharmacists. In On Distant Shores, pharmacist John Hutchinson serves in a pharmacy in an Army evacuation hospital in Italy, and in Anchor in the Storm, Lillian Avery works as a pharmacist in a drugstore in Boston during World War II.

Much about my profession has changed over the decades, but some things have not—the personal concern for patients, the difficult balance between health care and business, and the struggle to gain respect in the physician-dominated health-care world. Today I’ll discuss the role of the pharmacist in the 1940s, next we’ll visit the local drugstore and see how its role changed during the war, and then I’ll review the role of pharmacy in the US military.

The Profession of Pharmacy in the 1940s

Pharmacopeia of the United States, Twelfth Edition, 1 November 1942 (Sarah Sundin collection)

Pharmacopeia of the United States, Twelfth Edition, 1 November 1942 (Sarah Sundin collection)

The 1940 US census counted over 82,000 pharmacists. The majority worked in retail pharmacy, with only 3000 working in hospitals. In fact, less than half of hospitals had a pharmacist on staff.

A cornerstone of pharmacy had always been compounding, the practice of mixing a prescription from raw ingredients. Pharmacists made creams, ointments, elixirs, suspensions, capsules, tablets, suppositories, and powder papers. Every pharmacist owned a copy of the USP (United States Pharmacopoeia) guide—the 11th Edition (1937) or 12th Edition (1942), which provided chemical data on each substance. By the 1940s, pharmacists did less compounding—about 70 percent of prescriptions were filled with manufactured dosage forms.

In the 1940s, the pharmacist was a vital member of the community. Often viewed as more accessible than physicians, pharmacists were relied upon for health information and the treatment of minor ailments.

Education and Licensing

Pharmacy memorabilia, including 1942 edition of the United States Pharmacopoeia (Sarah Sundin collection)

Pharmacy memorabilia, including 1942 edition of the United States Pharmacopoeia (Sarah Sundin collection)

The first four-year Bachelor’s of Science degree in pharmacy was offered by the Ohio State University in 1925. The four-year program became mandatory with the incoming class of 1932. Therefore, during World War II, some pharmacists did not have college degrees, but the younger ones did.

In 1942, sixty-eight colleges of pharmacy operated in the United States. In addition to general education requirements, pharmacy students studied pharmacy, pharmaceutical chemistry, pharmacognosy (deriving pharmaceuticals from raw substances, such as plants), pharmacology (the effect of a drug on the body), and business.

Each state had its own licensing requirements and examinations, and there was no reciprocity between states. For example, a pharmacist licensed in California had to take a new set of examinations if he moved to Michigan.

During the war, most colleges of pharmacy adopted a year-round, three-year program during the war, to alleviate the manpower shortage and to increase the chance that a student would finish his degree before being drafted.

Manpower Shortage

Japanese-Americans Dr. K. H. Taria and pharmacist Tom Arase at work, Jerome War Relocation Center, Arkansas, 17 Nov 1942 (US National Archives: ARC 538864)

Japanese-Americans Dr. K. H. Taria and pharmacist Tom Arase at work, Jerome War Relocation Center, Arkansas, 17 Nov 1942 (US National Archives: ARC 538864)

In a nation of 130 million, over 11 million would serve in the armed forces during the course of the war. This produced a manpower shortage on the home front, and pharmacy was not immune. As a class, pharmacists were not exempt from the draft, but local draft boards could declare individuals as “necessary men” if their enlistment would negatively affect the health of the community.

During World War II between 10,000-14,000 pharmacists served in the military. In addition, the forcible internment of Japanese-American pharmacists made the situation even more acute on the West Coast. Since most drugstores were staffed by only one to two druggists, when a man enlisted the whole store was affected. Due to this, approximately 15 percent of drugstores closed during the war.

Women in Pharmacy

US poster, WWII

US poster, WWII

In the 1940 census, only 4 percent of pharmacists were female. But during the war, more opportunities opened for women as colleges and employers actively recruited them. Ads of the time promoted a pharmacy education as being of “special value to the homemaker” with its emphasis on safeguarding health.

Although enrollment in pharmacy schools plummeted during World War II, from 8410 in the 1940-41 school year to 3349 in 1944-45, enrollment of women rose from 356 in 1940-41 (4%) to 1599 in 1944-45 (48%).

Although the female pharmacist found more opportunities, she still faced prejudice. Many stores still refused to hire women, even with the severe shortage. Also, some patients were reluctant to trust the new “girl druggists,” although most adapted to seeing a feminine face behind the prescription counter—same as they adapted to Rosie the Riveter and Wendy the Welder.

Effects of the War

US poster, WWII

US poster, WWII

Due to store closures, the average store filled 13 percent more prescriptions than before the war. This increase in workload was balanced by depletion of other goods due to rationing and shortages. In addition, citizens were encouraged to take better care of their health so they could contribute to the war effort, which led to an increase in physician visits. Overworked physicians dispensed fewer drugs from their offices and sent more patients to pharmacies. As a result, the average drugstore enjoyed an 80 percent increase in sales during the war.

US poster, WWII

US poster, WWII

Pharmacists dealt with shortages of ingredients and medications. A serious shortage of quinine, used to treat malaria, led the military to collect the majority of the nation’s quinine stock. Also, shortages of alcohol, sugar, and glycerin taxed the ability of pharmacists to compound. Each pharmacy received a ration of ten pounds of sugar a week for compounding purposes.


My main source was this excellent, comprehensive, and well-researched book: Worthen, Dennis B. Pharmacy in World War II. New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 2004.

http://www.lloydlibrary.org (Website of the Lloyd Library and Museum, which has many articles and resources on the history of pharmacy).

United States Pharmacopoeial Convention. The Pharmacopoeia of the United States of America, Twelfth Edition. Easton PA: Mack Printing Company, 1 November 1942.

6 Responses to “Pharmacy in World War II: The Pharmacist”

  1. Shari Davenport

    Great article! I loved reading it. Thanks for writing it!😉 Something came to mind when I was reading the part about the fact that many female pharmacists faced prejudice, from pharmacy owners and the public alike! And this wasn’t even during the War, but well after it, in the 1960s.

    I recall there was an ongoing story/plot line established in the well liked TV series, “Andy Griffith,” where a new “lady pharmacist” came to Mayberry to practice, and was initially met with a lot of suspicion and prejudice from most of the townspeople! I THINK it took a good bit of pushback from Andy’s girlfriend, the teacher, Miss Crump, to get people to stop acting like they had been, and accept her like they would any male pharmacist!

    I don’t recall how long she remained with the show, but it was Eleanor Donahue – the eldest daughter on “Father Knows Best” who played Elly the Pharmacist on the show!

    • Sarah Sundin

      That storyline is very realistic! Even when I was in pharmacy school in the 1990s there was subtle discrimination – not in the school itself, which was amazing, but on the floors when we did rounds. My class was 73% female, and yet I often got surprised looks that I was the pharmacist, not the nurse. Physicians ordered me to warm up patients’ food – when I didn’t even know where the microwave was – ha! And even sometimes into the 2010s, I’d answer the phone and they’d be surprised that a woman was a pharmacist.

  2. Marguerite Moore

    Thank you for the interesting article. My father was a pharmacist for 50 years, 1928-1978. I graduated pharmacy school in 1960 and worked as a retail, hospital, consultant and relief pharmacist for 42 years. I did notice some prejudice in the early years, but it never affected who I felt I was. My first experience was in Florida, when I was working part time at a retail pharmacy. A couple came in to drop off their prescription. As they walked to the soda fountain while they waited, I heard them say, “Did you see that, a lady pharmacist!” It is a great profession for women. The picture of the USP brought back many memories. Thank you for sharing.

    • Sarah Sundin

      I love this, Marguerite! Yes, it’s an excellent profession for women – the schools are now easily 70-80% female, if not more. I loved being able to work on-call when my kids were little. It was an amazing experience – I kind of had the best of the “stay at home mom” and the “professional mom” worlds. I would have gone back full-time if writing hadn’t filled in the cracks. 🙂